I look outside today and find cars, totos (e-rickshaws), bikes, autos and everything mobile and stationary holding a national flag. It’s the 72nd Independence day, and my WhatsApp is spammed with wishes from people I had forgotten ever existed in my contacts list. Everybody is sharing the invigorating spirit of ‘nationalism’ by posting selfies in traditional clothes saluting their front cameras (don’t judge). Swiping my way through these, I wonder what does the word ‘freedom’ mean for Indians today? There couldn’t be a better day to discuss such a profound question than today. Let’s not question but ruminate over the invigorating exhilaration that we’re all feeling and put it to some good use.
Recently, a friend of mine from the North East was accused of being an ‘anti-national’ (first of all, wake up people, the current word is ‘urban naxals’) for speaking in her mother tongue in the metro. She was having a discussion with her friend about something and she happened to mention India twice or thrice. This infuriated an ‘aunty national’ in the women’s coach who without understanding what my friend was talking about started shouting at her and said: “tum mere India ke bare mein kuch nai bol sakti,” (you can’t say anything about my India) because, obviously, copyright issues. India is only for people who ‘look’ like Indians. Sharing this incident Bipasha Deroi, a student of Delhi University said: “Even after 71 years of freedom, we’re still discriminated against on the basis of our looks, the language we speak in, and our region. This Independence day I would seek for the freedom of expression of one’s culture, a freedom where our languages are not termed as ‘weird’ or ‘anti-national’.”
Seventy-one years of India’s freedom has also been 71 years of democracy in India, but has it really? Arundhati Roy in the context of American elections had said that choosing a leader is like choosing between two detergents, we are made to think we’re choosing but we are actually not. This is true for elections in India as well be it at the national, state, local or college level. Speaking about elections in Delhi University, Anushka, a 3rd-year student of B.A program said: “I think we still lack the freedom to make free choices. Take the DU elections as an example, even though I know we are free to vote anybody we like and there is secret ballot but still, many students are coerced and that goes unnoticed and is never discussed. For us, elections are still just about winning and victory is for the one who manages the most number of big posters or free pizzas for students.”
Reservations have been the general candidate’s ‘biggest’ problem. With 71 years of freedom and democracy, we’ve also roughly had more than six decades of reservations that many think is not necessary anymore or should be done away with. The problem, however, is not reservations, the problem is the way we look at reservations. And the politics is too complicated to sum up in a paragraph, but the hypocrisy of people is starkly visible when women in women’s coach complain about the job or college they couldn’t get in because of reservations. Aditi Singh, a student of Political Science from Ramjas College says, “We are celebrating this Independence day as Indians, but this identity is not enough to live in India. We still see people as Brahmins, as Dalits and feel the need to know their caste before any further close interactions. India is free and so is every casteist in India.”
Does everyone have the equal right to love whoever they want to? When asked about what freedom means to her, Shagun Handa, a student of Miranda House said, “Freedom is anything as small as being able to choose your partner and as big as being able to tick the ‘other’ option in the gender list on an official form.” It’s high time that section 377 dies. Baphira Shylla, a student of English Honours from Miranda House says, “I just want to feel safe, man. Walking the streets and not feel conscious about myself.” After pushing aside the ‘farcical’ report and declaring India to be safe for women, our politicians have done a great job of dealing with such concerns, but maybe we need to do a little more.
We have new definitions of freedom because our problems have evolved. While we should celebrate Independence day with delight, we must also not be disillusioned by the fact that the freedom of the nation is the same as the freedom of an individual. We have students being shot at, couples being beaten, and freedom of speech curtailed. Questioning the problems of your nation, speaking out against discrimination, criticizing what you feel is unfair does not make you any less of a nationalist or any more of an ‘anti-national’. Let’s be patriotic but let’s not impose our definition of patriotism on everybody.